Over the past couple of years smartphone photography has moved from something that you would do just to show what you’re doing or where you are to an art form. Social media has ushered in a whole new way to capture the essence of life through photos, with services like Instagram and Flickr encouraging users to not just take pictures but to take them further than they have before. This art form has evolved from the 35mm days of yore where hobbyist photographers would spend their free time developing photos and adding filters to the end of the lens for artistic effect to one taken with the device always in your pocket: your smartphone. Filters have become commonplace in every camera and photo editing app on the Google Play Store, and they add effects and feelings to photos that you wouldn’t normally get from just taking a quick picture and throwing it up on your favorite online repository.
Filters can be overused or improperly used, and while I’m not here to tell you what’s right and wrong I’d like to go over what some filters do to enhance a photo. Remember in the end this is art, and that means it’s the vision in your head that produces the final product, not a series of checklists to follow. Instagram is likely the most popular photo tool with filters built in, but Android’s native gallery has featured similar filters since Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, and even then Google’s own Photos app included with Google+ has a whole suite of powerful filters and adjustments you can make to your picture. These tools are primarily here to help you evoke an emotion with the scene you’ve taken a picture of, and filters play a massive part in that emotion. Taking a plain picture of the sunrise could be stunning depending on lighting conditions and such, but even a so-so picture can be made fantastic with just a simple filter. Make a goal for how you want the picture to look and work towards that, it’ll help immensely with the plethora of tools that are out there.
Let’s look at this picture of the sunset I took the other day or instance. It came out alright, nothing spectacular, but maybe we can give it a little boost with some filters or other enhancements. The original sunset was such a brilliant and spectacular sight, the massive orange ball glowing a burnt orange-red color and lighting up the entire lake with its presence. It doesn’t really feel like that looking at this picture though, does it? Moving through Instagram’s filters we find one called Hefe, which warms up the entire scene and gives it that distinctive glow I remember from the real-life scene. There are plenty of other filters, including some warmer ones like Kelvin, but none that I felt really made the scene appear the way it had, and picking something like a black and white in this scene feels like it cheapens the experience of the vista.
Moving on from the base filter to the next tab, Lux, which is a picture of the Sun, we find a new slider that was introduced in a recent version of Instagram. This slider controls some automatic sharpness and saturation levels, among a few other things, and in this particular scene I decided that the full 100% effect fit the scene most appropriately, as it sharpened up some details lost from the extreme Sunlight shining in the camera and helped bring back the color that was lost from the camera over compensating for the light levels. The last tab is a wrench, which gives you more manual control over many elements in the scene. Adjust and brightness are obvious so I won’t cover those. Contrast helps brings the light levels a little further into or out of balance depending on what you’re looking for in the scene. If you want a super dramatic picture with lots of dark shadows turn the contrast up, otherwise you may find yourself toning it down to grab a little more detail in the scene, but watch out because of you turn it too far down you wash everything out.
Hefe was a great start to warming the scene up but it’s still a little too cool, so I brought the slider up to 59 towards the warm side of the slider to enhance that portion of the photo. Saturation deals with color levels and since this is a super color rich scene I pumped that up to 50, bringing out the extreme colors in the Florida sunset and finally finding those colors in the reflection in the lake. Your photo may still look washed out at this point or a little dark, and that’s where highlights come in. Dragging the slider will help reduce or enhance the glow given from the brightest spots in the photo, again as the whites are reduced more color comes out, so I set it to -55. At this point my scene was dark enough so I didn’t want to change the shadow detail, but you may find yourself wanting to bring a subject into the light a little bit more and that’s where the shadow slider can come in handy. Tilt shift helps bring a specific spot in the photo into focus by producing an extreme blur around either a radial point or a complete section of the photo.
Sharpen and vignette are two things that can be completely over-used, so be careful when choosing those effects. Sharpening in particular can produce a scene with too many artifacts, or pixels that have been adjusted so much they ruin any detail found in the picture and end up ruining the color of objects, particularly around the edges. This little session only covers Instagram too, not the multitude of other photo editing apps out there that could completely change the way your photo looks as well. Google Photos is another fantastic free tool that offers even more options for adjusting the image, although it’s lighter on the filters. VSCO Cam might just tickle your fancy with it’s mountain of quality filters, and seems to be preferred by many photographers out there for its looks as well as the ability to keep photos in their original size, unlike Instagram which resizes your photo to best work on a mobile device. All in all have fun with this and take the time to experiment with settings, the more you know about how each affects a scene the more fun you’ll have when editing!